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If you do something that nourishes nature and your surroundings, you will certainly experience nourishment within yourself as well. This is what life-scaping is all about. Corrina Bellizzi delves into this concept further with Monique Allen, CEO of The Garden Continuum. Monique shares tips on the most sustainable ways of building indoor and outdoor landscaping. She explains everything that must be considered, from soil health, types of plants, and the reasonable cost of labor. Monique also talks about how landscaping can help regenerate your body and soul, giving you a better mindset and a stronger connectivity with the world.
About Monique Allen
Monique Allen is the CEO of The Garden Continuum, an award-winning, multiple seven-figure landscape design/build, and fine gardening company. She is the author of the book “STOP Landscaping, START Life-Scaping” and the founder of the Life-scape Method for landscape development. An active business coach and a “Gardener of People,” Monique empowers owners to build compassionate cultures and eco-friendly practices that foster triple bottom line success.
0:00 – Introduction
3:28 – The “wasteful” landscaping industry
10:20 – What makes soil healthy or unhealthy
14:18 – The wisdom of nature
21:09 – Choosing (flowering) plants for landscaping structure
26:22 – The cost of landscaping labor
33:08 – The concept of “life-scaping”
40:22 – Benefits of biochar
45:24 – Final words
48:38 – Conclusion
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Life-Scaping: Embrace The Regenerative Wisdom of Nature
In this episode, we’re going to dive into the topic of regeneration as it relates to building our outdoor and indoor world with landscaping and even life-scaping. To head down this path, I’m joined by Monique Allen. Monique is a master creator, interactive employer, published author and fierce industry advocate in the world of landscaping. She wrote a book to chronicle her thinking and the life-scaping method with her book, Stop Landscaping, Start Life-Scaping.
As an active business coach, she’s developed the regenerative community to support business owners who want to grow their businesses and a supportive community of like-minded entrepreneurs. She considers herself her primary job as a gardener of people and uses her gifts to empower owners and nurture compassionate cultures and eco-friendly practices that foster triple bottom line success. That’s people, planet and profit. Monique, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Corrina. I’m happy to be here.
I’m thrilled to have you here. As we kick this off, I want to give people a little bit of context for me. My father is a landscape architect and so I have lived in the world of landscape as it relates to construction my whole life. My first job was working as an archivist at my father’s landscape architecture firm in Palo Alto, California, cataloging the work that he did for some major corporations, Stanford University and the ultra-wealthy that live in Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto, famous footballers like Jerry Rice and things like that. I got to have a different view of this whole world. As we get started, I wanted to talk about something that you hit on in the very first pages of your book, which is at least how I’m seeing it, how the landscaping industry can be wasteful.
First off, thank you so much for having me here and for that introduction because I love it that you get it. There’s something about this industry that if you haven’t been introduced to it, you often can’t get it entirely. You think about what you see in Scott’s commercials. I do appreciate that right away. You’ve got the thread of what I was doing. It is a little sad to think about an industry that I love so much, your father loved so much and you were introduced to young as wasteful or problematic at all.
When I was writing the book, what I was realizing is that commoditization in and of itself is not purely evil or anything. It’s an offshoot of what happens when things get popular fast. On the one hand, I am so happy that more people have access to gardening, landscaping, being in their yards and doing things themselves. The DIY movement has given more people access. The negative though is when you speed up an industry and you need to make an industry accessible to more people. You look for faster and cheaper ways to do things.
In this particular world, which we know from lots of areas, packaging and driving are real problems. You take companies that will take work wherever, whoever, asks them to do the work and they will drive all over the place. They’re scattered to the winds. There’s a lot of fossil fuel waste. For me, I wanted to move out of that product mindset, the thing mindset and move back to a systems mindset looking at tending and developing a landscape as a long game. That’s how I landed on life-scaping.
That concept may be familiar to some of those who’ve read this show and in particular, the regeneration series where I even talk about wilding. The reality of building a landscape that is going to sustain itself through being a part of the natural climate. Allowing certain portions of your yard or outdoor space to trend towards what might be a little bit wild while still planned. You’re using shrubs or different plants that might be more drought tolerant. If you’re in a drought area like in California, you’re using plants that might be endemic to the area.
You’re not introducing something like, “I want to have a banana plant in my yard but I don’t live somewhere that has enough moisture in the air to sustain it.” How are you then overusing water even to garden your yard to have it look a certain way that you’ve pictured in your mind without it being relevant to the space?
Your exact language in the book that you wrote down if I’m remembering correctly, was something about it being product-driven as an entire mindset when we’re doing things like planning our outdoor spaces as opposed to being environment-oriented. Can you talk about that and how you got to that conclusion or even discovered it in a way? It’s something that people don’t often talk about.
For a while, I studied medicinal herbs. I was very interested in health and our intrinsic wisdom around being stable and healthy in our bodies. I learned through that process about how our gut flora worked and connect that to food. I started to learn about how the soil is the functional digestive tract of a plant. A lot of the things that we might do to balance our digestive system to keep our bodies healthy are quite similar to what we might do to help and restore, especially damaged soils so that we can manage and assist the plants to do what they want to do naturally.
I started to think of gardening a little bit more like a kick-starter campaign. It was my job to kickstart an ecological system that wanted to be in motion but maybe had stalled out for a certain reason. Maybe there had been a construction, a lawn that had been mowed a ton and maybe had chemical fertilizers put on it. I started to ask myself questions about how I could take the landscape and give it back to mother nature while also respecting the fact that human beings need a sense of order to feel safe.
We have an intrinsic part of our limbic brain that is looking for safety that wants to be able to see over the Savanna. It’s called the Savanna Effect or something like that where this idea of that long expansive lawn has some connection to being able to see the line before it comes and gets you but it’s been capitalized as we will capitalize on things that strike our fancy or make us feel safe. I thought, “There’s got to be other ways to do this to have organization, have health and not give up some of the wow factors.”
For me, it was about starting in the gut, soil and with that beautiful layer of life-giving soil and seeing how could we support that in such a way that we build the system and in doing so, lifting our heads and looking at the surrounding environment. The problem when you’re in a suburban area is you look up and look at your surroundings and nothing is natural.
If you are in an area that has more access to unmarked nature, then you can look and see, “What’s going on there already? What’s going on there naturally that I might be able to pick up on, use, replicate and borrow into the landscape that I’ve got?” Between those two things, it’s easy to shift the way you design, plant and garden. It is kickstarting an ecological system that doesn’t take a heavy hand.
You mentioned a couple of things I want to draw out a little bit more detail on. One starts with soil health that’s connected to the long game. I’d venture to guess. Let’s see if we can talk a little bit more about what makes a soil healthy, unhealthy or not supportive of that microbiome essentially that would be required to grow healthy plants?
In highly developed areas, one of the main detriments to soil is compaction. It’s that crushing effect of the construction. When you have a highly constructed neighborhood or a planned area, usually every inch of that soil has been driven upon and that beautiful honeycomb of the O-horizon could have been stripped and sold off. This also happens with the A-horizon. Oftentimes, a lot of that is taken away. The O-horizon is your organic matter layer. The A-horizon is a little less juicy and vibrant with all of the microorganisms but it is still a highly functional layer.
That’s what many landscaping firms refer to as topsoil.
What they buy in the nursery, we call it steam cleaned. It’s relatively devoid. People call it loam.
With tannish brown and doesn’t have a lot of life in it. It’s crumbly. It feels like it’s been compacted.
Compacted and then fluffed back up. One of the things that are very hard for me to get contractors to understand is when they drive over something, they say, “We’ll go with the excavator and fluff it back up.” I need you to picture the gentle wax honeycomb in a beehive. If you crush it, there is nothing that you as a human being can do to make it again. Only a bee can make it. You can’t make it so no fluffing will ever make the soil better.
When we’re looking at regenerative work, we think about reintroducing biology and the structural building blocks to allow that honeycomb to come back. The beautiful thing is that when you spend the money and take the time to do that, like you might heal somebody who has a leaky gut, you have the ability to heal the soil. It’s not like it happens tomorrow but add things like good compost, maybe biochar, which is a wonderful thing to add, fish emulsions or live biology.
It’s true though. This is something I talk about a fair amount because I come from the Omega-3 industry and spent ten years building Nordic Naturals, which is a major fish oil company. One of the things that fish get used for is fertilizer. Once you’ve extracted the oil and other vital parts, often it becomes fertilizer.
Neptunes Harvest is a cool one that people can buy and use instead of Miracle-Gro. When people put Miracle-Gro in their soil, they are depleting the ability for the natural biotic life in the soil and the whole microbial layer. You’re feeding it like Snickers bars and it’s not going to last. If you can use something more supportive, maybe a little stinky, you are going to be doing the work that will regenerate the system. When you have a healthy system, it’s not like you have no weeds but you do have fewer weeds. You have fewer problematic things going on. Weeds are a whole discussion in and of itself but they’re not always all bad and the parents are telling you something.Commoditization is not purely evil. It's an offshoot of what happens when things get popular really fast. Click To Tweet
One of the things that Paul Hawken talks about in his book Regeneration is that when people look at weeds, the weed is there often to go ahead and replenish or deliver something into the soil that is missing from it. They thrive in a certain condition that might not support the life that you’re trying to grow but the weed is there to take care of some of that too. It’s like the wisdom of nature and we’re forgetting that there is wisdom in nature as we try to control the environment from top to bottom.
There’s one thing I want to put out there. I don’t know if, in California, you have poison ivy the way we have it here.
Poison oak, which is very similar.
We have a huge poison ivy because of the increased carbon dioxide in the air. It’s becoming overrun. There are a couple of camps about whether it’s okay and good because it supports the birds or maybe not because they don’t like that food. The interesting thing is the jewelweed, which is the impatiens genus. Jewelweed will grow right next to poison ivy. If you pull the jewelweed, crush it and rub it all over your arms then go into the poison Ivy, you won’t get it. It’s so crazy. Another one, because I geek out on this, is we have Japanese knotweed.
I don’t think that’s Japanese knotweed. It’s different. Kudzu is a vine. We also have a huge deer tick problem and Lyme disease problem here. There is so much work that has been done on the knotweed plant and pulling the chemical constituents out of knotweed as a healing modality for Lyme disease. There’s so much wisdom and not that I imagine every homeowner is going to grab all of that but if we slow down long enough, we can say, “There’s, for instance, a lawn here that gets clover in it.” Clover is a legume. It’s a natural nitrogen fixer. It will pull atmospheric nitrogen and put it down into the soil. Who is a nitrogen hog? It’s turf. Why not have them live together? You need to have some turf, which is great to play kickball. Have clover in it.
You might step on a beer too. That’s what tends to come with it but it’s also pretty. They’re little white and pink flowers that erupt from the clover that is quite great. Kids like to look for the four-leaf clovers. That can be a fun activity. There’s always that. We have redesigned our yard, for the most part. I like to grow plants that produce food. I have strawberries as ground cover underneath the non-fruiting cherry that the prior owners planted. I don’t understand planting non-fruiting cherry. I would much rather have a cherry than a non-fruiting one.
We also have a couple of plums, a couple of lemons and some other trees along those lines. We tend to water them with water from our rain barrel or shower capture. It’s getting gray water continually throughout the year to support them. Generally speaking, it has reduced our lawn. Part of the reason behind that is the fact that it uses so much more water than other plants do and we’re in California.
The other part of that is connecting with nature and doing things like planting the types of bushes that flower that the hummingbirds like. It’s nice to have them join the ecosystem and be a part of that. It feels like when we then go outside to spend time on our deck or in our front yard, we’re a part of a little bit of a wild community of Animalia.
I might compete sometimes with the squirrels for the fruits from my trees but that’s okay with me too because we aren’t living in a bubble. One of the things that I would drive home to people is creating your outdoor space. You can’t live within a bubble. There are going to be insects, animals and birds of all sorts. If you plant a diverse yard that can thrive in your ecosystem as it exists, guess what? You’re going to attract some wildlife that will be pleasant.
I teach Garden Ecology and Sustainable Design in the Master Gardeners Association in Massachusetts. I always tell this story of a client that I had that wanted a butterfly garden. Essentially, a pollinator garden but in particular, she was interested in Monarch butterflies and having lots of plants in there that would be supportive. This is not a joke. I got a call that there were a lot of holes in the leaves of her plants and she had bugs. She wanted me to get rid of the bugs.
With a straight face, I was like “The butterflies start as caterpillars and caterpillars feed on the leaves before they become caterpillars of some of the host plants.” That’s why we put plants that are leaf host plants, as well as floral host plants. She was great about it but it didn’t even occur to me when I was doing the garden for her to teach her that was going to happen. Now, it’s in my narrative. I always say, “You’re going to have to be okay with holey leaves but at least they’re with God.” We have become somewhat disconnected from the wisdom of nature but also the cycles and systems of nature. We think of the house with the plants, lawn and driveway. It could be so much more.
In New England, we have to be in our houses more. We have half the year when it’s cold and sometimes, super snowy. I always like to landscape in the landscape so that if I’m looking from my windows, my whole landscape isn’t under the window cell. This creates going back to the Gertrude Jekyll and this older version of a landscape where you are creating strolls.
You’re creating islands and small patches of lawn where you might then connect to a path and that path would take you. For me, I grow lots of food but also a lot of medicinal herbs. Even if I don’t dig them up that plant spirit medicine, being able to be with those herbs is restorative and regenerative to us as much as it’s regenerative to the planet.
I wanted to bring something up that gets back to this product conversation. It’s something that came up when I was even looking at the types of flowering plants that I might plant. You’ll see articles along the lines of, “Don’t choose more than two colors of floral or flowers to have in your garden because it can look haphazard.” I’m like, “I want a rainbow. I don’t care.” There’ll be white flowers. I have strawberries that have a pink blossom and strawberries that have white blossom. I have a yellow blossom and a periwinkle blue blossom. I tried to grow lavender but the climate isn’t right for it here. It’s probably much better where you are. I grow a couple of different species of Salvia. One of them is called Hot lips and it looks like bursting lips and all sorts of snapdragons because I love them.
When I was a kid, I thought they were fun to grab and do little snaps with. Having children, I wanted to expose them to these things. There’s no rhyme or reason to the colors. They’re things that I like that will thrive here. There’s something to that to how you express your personality. I love bright colors. I like to see blooms occur throughout the year. I live in California where that’s possible if you plant a certain way and if you consider the life cycle of the plants that you do plant. From a product perspective, what do you think about something when you hear, “You should get these particular plants and focus on two colors?” Maybe it’s white, red, yellow, pink or something.
I’d throw that right out. I’m with you. I love that rainbow of color and vibrancy. First off, I would never design a landscape with flowers. The way I design is I look at the structural nature. I’m talking about the plants. I’m looking at the structural nature because, in the winter, we need the structure to give us some of the ambiance and beauty that we miss. Everything’s gone.
You talk about structure. Do you also mean things like you might see the tier and the height of the trees and bushes when they’re without their leaves?
I’m looking at the layered niches so heights, spreads, evergreen, deciduous so dropping its leaves or holding its leaves. I might look at very wide branching patterns versus very narrow skinny branching patterns. I look at bark and berry because the bark is quite stunning up against snow. It can be stunning in both the morning light and the dusk. Some plants have beautiful bark.
We moved to flower. With flowers, I generally don’t care what color they are. I’m more interested in who is their pollinator? What time of year do they come out? My little tagline is Life-Scape for All Seasons. Can I have some interests or support available to my eyes? In the ground or around my yard, can I have something going on all the time? That creates a texture in the landscape that without knowing it, I also think is positively vibrational for us and the rest of the landscape.
I love a monochromatic garden. That’s a theme for a little section. We take care of a retirement community and do all of the beautiful areas. We have one garden right near the main grand lobby of the entrance to this place that is in a dark hole. There’s no light. It feels a little depressed so we do layers of white flowers, variegated foliage and silver foliage. That is a thematic garden. That garden has all white.
That particular plant doesn’t require a lot of light. It’s able to thrive and then it reflects light. It brightens it up. That’s what you’re looking for there.
It brightens it up. Going back to your statement about you should only pick two colors, the danger in that sentence is the should. You could pick two colors if you were attempting this. If you’re looking for calm, you might look at this. If you’re looking for excitement, you might look at this. There’s a whole world of color theory that we can play within that. In gardening, because it is dealing with life energy, we probably need to hold the sheds for thou shalt not put chemicals on the landscape.
When we’re using compost, we’re also using chemicals but organic. Everything gets back to chemistry if you ask that question. Scientists will tell you that. We don’t need to use roundup on our gardens to get rid of flat-leafed. That construct needs to go the way of the dodo. Let’s talk for a minute about this though. You are serious about promoting this whole triple bottom line in the world of landscaping and beyond. When you’re talking about service industries like landscaping, often the thing that is the most expensive is the labor and then everything else is so commoditized that you’re not paying a lot for it.People have become disconnected from nature's wisdom, cycle, and system. Click To Tweet
The risk when we’re looking at that industry, in particular, is that you’re squeezing the price down. It gets harder to book people and planets ahead of the profit that you might make. Specifically, in this industry, I wonder if you could talk about that because this also relates to what you’re doing with the whole life-scaping work.
I came to the term triple bottom line not that long ago. When I heard it, I was like, “There’s a word for what I’m doing. This is so cool.” I had invested in some coaches in the landscape industry to help me in growing my business and so much of it was about being profitable and efficient, cutting your costs and functioning lean. It was so much and it hurt my heart.
Where you squeeze ultimately, it ends up being your people.
It’s your people. I got very used to people telling me, “You’re expensive.” I started to want to understand more about why was I “expensive.” I realized that there were a couple of reasons. The first is that I run my business in such a way that my people work a five-day workweek. They don’t work the weekends. They work a reasonable work week. They’re paid overtime if they work overtime. They have health insurance and all manner of benefits paid time off.
That is weird in the landscape industry. It’s becoming more common but that’s because we have bigger landscape companies that are gobbling up other landscape companies. We have these big national companies that can function like huge corporations but when you look at the landscape industry, most of the companies are under $1 million in revenue and only employ 4 to 6 people.
The people they employ are generally in the office and using contracted labor?
No, the people they hire are usually in the field. They’re often paid under the table and work without benefits. There’s a huge H-2B program but that is much more regulated. There is enough under-the-table employment all around still. It’s hard. I made a commitment that I was going to take control of the experience that I was going to offer my employees. That meant that they needed to be fully cared for and that immediately skyrocketed our pricing.
The second thing was that we were always going to consider the soil, which meant we were always going to have a portion of all of our fine gardening work and construction work that was about regenerative actions on the soil. If all the other companies aren’t doing that, then I was effectively 20% “higher” than anybody else. To the eye, I would plan to plant a garden and they would plant a garden. If you walked away and came back a year later, my landscape would be exploding with health and vibrancy. Their landscape would either look the same or be looking peaking.
Part of it was to create the sales narrative that helped people to understand why our fees were the way they were and what was going to the organization, health, wow factor, people, planet and profit. We are in business for profit. That took me a long time to be able to say without feeling guilty and apologizing. What I do in my regenerative business community is to try very hard to help other business owners have that same sense of agency so that they can take very good care of themselves, their people and the planet and have a lifestyle business instead of a business that crushes them over time.
That’s critical for all of us to think about, especially the service providers that we employ. I can think about, in my world, other service providers that I have worked with over the years from daycare providers to even the tree trimmer that I brought in to cable our oak trees because we want to see our oak trees live for a long time as opposed to splitting. In each case, we have looked at the whole picture. In some cases, the more expensive option was the right one because of the whole picture.
The whole picture of the experience provided to my kids or the experience of understanding my oak trees. Maybe I didn’t need to spend that $1,200 but if I didn’t spend it, I might have had a fence get knocked over in a storm because a branch bell or that oak tree might’ve split. I have to pay for its removal. It provided shade and other benefits to me, my home community and my home environment. Sometimes these things are investments. It doesn’t mean you have to do it the way that you’re going to do it but if you don’t, then there could be a consequence that you’ll later regret. I like this long view of healthy soil and yard.
Mine needs some work. ‘m not going to let you see my garden. You can judge me but I’m thinking about specifically the dump truck that happens to be in a planter where my kids were deciding to play with it, probably crushing one of my strawberry plants, as an example. This shows the life of a mom with kids at home.
The intention is there. I’m not working to uproot every single weed I see in the garden. My theme when it comes to my lawn is if it’s green, it gets mowed and so what? Big deal. There might be some dandelions in there. Dandelions are great too and my kids like to blow on the seeds. Their leaves are nutritious. I ended up feeding them to my bearded dragon. My bearded dragon needs greens too. We need to shift our mindset about our outdoor spaces.
As we bring the concepts that you’ve learned over the years indoors with your book, I’d like you to talk for a moment about bringing this whole landscaping to life-scaping perspective into this world for us all, as you’re working to help people build circular economies, regenerative businesses and thriving cultures within their companies so people feel like they are appreciated and can grow and those individuals will be more likely to employ regenerative practices in their lives.
This has been such evolution and I would not have known that I would have landed here. At eighteen, I had no idea what I wanted to do. When I got out of college, I was told, “When are you going to get a real job?” It’s because I had been landscaping. It took me a long time to come around to this but what I’ve realized is that as I was struggling to figure out my way, the gardening that I was doing was in the lives of the people that I was connecting with. I first learned that when I worked with a client who I only ever met the woman of the house. I never met the husband. He seemed relatively uninterested except that his wife wanted this.
We did a project for them. This happened with another client too. I’m telling a story. Everything shifted in their life, in their home life and the way they were interacting in their marriage because, all of a sudden, he was so interested in the outside, which had always been so interesting to her. It turned out he was a birder. He loved birds and birdwatching. We started planting plants that would attract the birds that he liked. It started to shift their relationship.
Another one very similar was a gentleman who worked very hard in Boston, probably a high-intensity job and wanted to run away to their lake house all the time. When we completed their landscape, his wife was like, “Let’s pack up and go.” His response was, “Why don’t we stay here and have breakfast in the garden then we can go?” Both of these women emailed me and were like, “This happened.” I started to get this taste of how people were craving a little bit of slowness, connectivity and vibrational connection to themselves.
I started to see the same thing with my employees. They wanted to be seen, heard and have their potential tapped somehow. What I’ve realized is that is something that I can give back to my industry but also to anyone in the service trades by having these conversations about how do we hire? We don’t hunt people because that’s not very nice but we could attract them. That’s a different language in our recruiting. Once we get them, we avoid the pain of heavy revolving door action. What we can do is think about, “Now that they’re here, how do we nurture and develop them?”
Think of them as that beautiful peony in your garden that you want to thrive and be gorgeous. You would tend it. Why wouldn’t you tend the human too? We’re soul craving that as people. When we can build that into our organizations, it can become part of the system so that it isn’t burdensome work. It’s hard to build these systems like it’s hard to build a landscape at first. Once the systems are built, the habits are formed and the expectations are part of your culture, it is in flow. I’m not going to ever say that it’s easy but there’s simplicity to running and building a business that way so that you are fostering compassion.
You’re speaking to a couple of things that you haven’t necessarily come up directly and said. One is that you are in a business that is dominated by men. If there are female workers, they tend to be on the office administration side and not on the ownership and running things side. They also tend less to be doing the work of the gardening or the landscaping. As such a case, we’ve taken a more male-associated extractive view of how we’re building the business.
What we’re seeing is that there is science behind the fact that running a business in this way long-term can be more profitable and ensure that you have less turnover. Turnover can be incredibly expensive, especially if there’s a lot of training involved in developing your systems and ensuring the execution is proper. I do think that this work is a product in a way of you being a woman in this male-dominated field and spending a lifetime doing the work. I applaud the effort. I plan to read the book cover to cover because I know I’ll learn something. It will probably inspire me to get back into my garden a little bit more, get my compost out and get that trowel and shovel to work.
Getting your hands in healthy soil is so great. Even if it’s just 30 minutes, 1 hour or 15 minutes, go out and pick your strawberries. Plus, they taste better.
They do taste good but unfortunately, the slugs usually get to them before I do. I don’t know if people are aware of this but without using some pest control, slugs and snails will get to them badly.
I’ll give you a little tip. It will work for you too but I grow strawberries successfully. When you mix biochar, if you can get your hands on some biochar and put a little bait, your soil is going to be a little lighter and drain a little bit better. You’re going to have healthier biology in there and tend not to have the same slug problem. Also, thinning your strawberries so that you get more air circulation. You can also lift your strawberries a little by crisscrossing your sticks and then hang the strawberries over the sticks. It’s fun for the kids to do. Maybe the slugs will get 1 or 2 but you could have fewer.Gardening is dealing with life energy. No one should put chemicals on their landscapes. Click To Tweet
That’s why some people use strawberry containers. I have one. I hated them because I had to water them so much to keep the soil moist enough for the strawberries to be happy. I felt like I was consistently wasting water. I didn’t realize how much more quickly they would dry out in that clay pot but they do. That’s a story for another day.
Before we tip though to this close of the show, you’ve talked about biochar a couple of times. Biochar is something that Paul Hawken also talks about. I didn’t know much about it before reading his book. I thought that biochar was like, “It’s like charcoal.” Talked to us about biochar. What it is? What can it do for our gardens?
It’s a long conversation that would go too long but I’m going to give you the little condensed version. The wood is burned in the absence of oxygen. By burning in the absence of oxygen, there’s no fire. In the places that I get it from, all of the burning is captured, brought back into the system and acts as fuel or heat that we capture and use to heat buildings, greenhouses and so on. The cool thing about how biochar is made is this is an entirely closed system that creates zero off-gassing. It’s amazing.
The second thing I’ll tell you about it is that one way you can think about biochar is it’s like a condominium for all of your biology. When we have major rain events, disruption or tillage, what will happen is that it will disrupt your biology. If you can give your biology someplace that’s very safe to live and proliferate, you create a stronger structure within that O-horizon and even down into that A-horizon.
What we’re trying to do is stabilize our topsoil. Stabilize what we’re losing so much of by putting that biochar in there. When you water mindfully, your biology along with the biochar is holding your water in the heat events. If you can add healthy mulches so nothing died or is synthetic but ground-up leaves or aged wood chips that come from tree removal and so forth, you will begin to restore and rebuild the soils that we need so much. Biochar is one of those little building blocks that helps the living matter find its way home.
It’s putting carbon back in the soil, which the plants need to grow too.
Yes, but the biochar itself is relatively inert. In and of itself is not doing anything but it’s providing a haven for all that biology to do all of what it does, which is part of how we can sequester carbon.
I thought of it too when I was looking at how biochar is made. All of the channels or the cell walls of the actual plant that existed before it was charred are still there, which creates channels for the water to hide, the microbes and everything else so that they can resist drought. Also, it creates a soil that gets a little bit more aeration. It’s a little fluffier. There’s also some interesting research with cows where they’re feeding biochar to cows and reducing their methane production by as much as 90%. It’s insane. The more I learn about biochar, the more I’m like, “Why aren’t we using this solution more?”
The interesting thing about it is it is so regenerative that it’s not like you add it like fertilizer. You add it as a building block like you would build your kitchen counter but you wouldn’t come down every morning and build a kitchen counter again. It’s built. It’s there. The beautiful thing is we’re not using biochar as an amendment that we’re adding every year upon every year.
You might have a couple of successive years where you’re adding a little bit to create the soil but then you back off because remember, the kick-starter campaign. All you need to do is kickstart the structural health, the biological health and the nutrient of health so that all of that chemistry, biology and water start to do what nature does not need us to help it do. It’s important to think of that.
The second thing to remember is that biochar will suck the life out of your soil if it is not charred or you don’t add food. If biochar is aggressively added or has no food charred in it, it will pull what it needs. It’s like a sponge out of a plant. You do have to be careful, think, go slowly and research it. There is information out there and it is an incredible addition to a regenerative system of caring for the soil.
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on biochar. As we get ready to wrap, I like to ask a question of all my guests and that is simply if there’s a question that I haven’t asked that you wish I had, in particular, as it relates to sustainability or regenerative businesses, what might it be? If you have that, then ask and answer it.
Maybe the one thing I would say is, how did you do this and raise a family too? I believe that the idea of life-scaping for me has become about I can life-scape a piece of land and bring landscaping to my business but it’s this idea that we can have full agency in our lives to build beautiful lives that have all of the facets, where we can embrace being a parent, a friend and cooking food. What I have found by using the system in my business and life is that I have more energy. I feel healthier. I’m an asthmatic and I take no medicine anymore. We have such power to direct our health, wellness and vitality if we choose to do so.
I can’t think of a better point on which to land this episode. I want to thank you, Monique, for your hard work and for joining us. I’d like to invite you back to talk more about things we can do in composting, biochar and all these things that we can do to regenerative build our garden and reduce our carbon footprint. That is what we need to be thinking about in our daily lives because we can affect it.
I’d be happy to come back. Thank you.
Monique, is there anywhere else that you’d like to send people to connect with you?
Instagram is my happy place. I love to go onto Instagram. I’m @Monique.Allen. I pop on there and talk about life-scaping, regenerative business and little tips on how to keep yourself up and motivated in your business. I have links that will take you to the Garden Continuum‘s Instagram. It’s a fun place to connect in a little bit more human and less academic atmosphere.
I don’t go to Instagram to play so much anymore but I will follow you there. I’m finding my new joy in TikTok and experimentation. Perhaps, we can learn it there too together. I’ll bring you over there and to the dark side of this new Millennium of using short-form videos to reach your audience. It’s fun, silly and a little bit of a time suck but that’s the way Instagram was when I first went there too. Thank you, Monique.
As we close this episode, I want you to lean into discovery. Stay curious and hopeful. Ask questions. Approaching life like that and the challenges that you see around you will create more of an engaged sense in our future. You too can be a part of building a better future. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please subscribe so you’re sure to be notified each time we release a new show.
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If there’s anything in particular in this area that you’d like to see covered or questions that you have, you can even leave me a voicemail on CareMoreBeBetter.com. There’s a little microphone icon in the bottom right. You could tap on that, leave me a voicemail or send me an email directly from the site to Hello@CareMoreBeBetter.com. Thank you, reader, now and always, for being a part of this show and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more and be better. We can even regenerate the earth. Thank you.
- Monique Allen
- Stop Landscaping, Start Life-Scaping
- Neptunes Harvest
- Master Gardeners Association
- @Monique.Allen – Instagram
- Apple Podcasts – Care More Be Better